Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Low Carbon Land Use: Paris, Pittsburgh, and the IPCC: Post 4: Shaping Human Settlements: A Series by John R. Nolon

[This post is the fourth in a series that will appear over the coming months.]  

Low Carbon Land Use: Paris, Pittsburgh, and the IPCC.  

Shaping Human Settlements

by John R. Nolon Distinguished Professor of Law

Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University

The concept that municipal governments can physically shape their development is not well understood. The uniform, single-use land use pattern originally created by zoning designed communities to accomplish discrete objectives such as protecting child health and safety, controlling traffic congestion, and providing housing and commercial space to meet market demands.  As time progressed, the environmental and economic harm caused by the resultant urban patterns led many local governments to reshape their settlements.

The 1972 Petaluma Plan discussed in the previous post rebalanced the future housing stock of the City through zoning reform that required an even mix of single-family and multi-family housing. The local legislature changed its land use law to achieve more environmentally friendly design, protect open space, create a greenbelt around the community, provide for a variety of housing choices, evenly distribute housing between the east and west sides of the City, and to service growth efficiently.  Only in retrospect do we recognize these strategies as mitigation measures that reduce per capita energy consumption and protect the sequestering environment. 

Petaluma’s reforms were not novel, even in 1972. In 1937, for example, the local legislature in Bridgeport, Connecticut amended its zoning ordinance to allow small commercial developments along major arterials in single-family neighborhoods in order to reduce downtown traffic congestion. As the population increased in Bridgeport’s single-family zones, more and more residents drove to the central business district to shop for goods and services. The commercial uses allowed in these new small districts included hardware, grocery, and drug stores, bake shops, and beauty parlors.  Permitting these developments reduced downtown congestion but also vehicle trips and vehicle miles travelled, one of the largest contributors to CO2 emissions.  This climate change mitigation effect was not on the minds of Bridgeport’s legislators at the time, but the zoning technique they created can be used today to reduce carbon emissions from vehicle travel.

A decade after Bridgeport’s innovation, the Village of Tarrytown, New York, adopted a floating zone to provide affordable garden apartments to attract workers needed for employers whose businesses were essential to stabilize the Village’s real property tax base.  The 1947 zoning ordinance created a floating garden apartment zone, but it did not specify where the dwelling units would be permitted. This was left to private-market developers who could petition the Village legislature for a zoning map amendment, allowing them to build garden apartments. Significant landscaping was required to buffer the effect of multi-family housing in single-family neighborhoods where the new housing type was permitted. By zoning for workforce housing close to jobs and requiring significant landscaping, the Village created a mechanism that communities today can use to mitigate climate change.

In the 1970s, the Town of Ramapo adopted an impressive number of land use tools to control its growth, significantly adding to the land use tool box. Among these were a moratorium on development, a short- and long-term capital budget, a point system linking development with the provision of infrastructure (including open public spaces), the use of special use permits in lieu of as-of-right development, novel land use definitions, permits for small-scale development, and hardship exemptions to prevent regulatory taking claims.  All of these were embodied in a new land use plan designed to allow this suburban community to absorb efficiently the population growth emanating from nearby New York City.

In the 1980s, Omaha reconfigured its urban form by adopting a planned unit development zoning ordinance. This legislative reform permitted the developer to create a large, mixed-use neighborhood, while preserving much of the rezoned acreage as open space. The City entered into a multi-phase agreement with the developer that specified the many details of the development – techniques designed to allow the developer to meet new market needs for mixed-use development and protect the downstream riparian owners from flooding. Indirectly, climate change was mitigated and community resilience promoted by the creation of a walkable neighborhood and the preservation of sequestering open space.

There are many who doubt that parochial local governments can respond in any significant way to the challenge of global climate change. There are, however, many local land use tools available to them that clearly reduce or sequester carbon emissions. The local climate change mitigation tool box has been stocking up for decades. Techniques created for a different purpose are now being used by localities for a highly challenging purpose.  As the first responders to climate-caused disasters and damage, local leaders are highly motivated to act. The wisdom of the IPCC in including shaping human settlements as a critical mitigation strategy in its Fourth Assessment Report is increasingly evident as local governments quicken the pace of adopting such tools to respond to the perturbations of climate change.

Material from this series will appear in Low Carbon Land Use: Paris, Pittsburgh, and the IPCC, an article to be published by the Arkansas Law Review.

Previous posts in this series are available here:

Post 1:  Paris, Pittsburgh, and the IPCC

Post 2:  Post-Paris Contagion

Post 3: Carbon Emissions: The Land Use Connection

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